21st-23rd July, 2017
I’ve often felt upon entering the various uplands of Britain like I am a pilgrim on a holy journey; necessarily on foot, and necessarily struggling to see new heights. The surrounds of Edale in the Peak District lends itself naturally to this feeling: It is the start of the Penine Way that traverses some 267 miles from just outside The Old Nags Head in the village; up through the Derbyshire Peak District; the Yorkshire Dales; through the Northumbrian Cheviots to pass Hadrian’s Wall and eventually ends inside the Scottish border at Kirk Yetholm. Edale itself is entered under the watchful prominence of Mam Tor; an iron-age hillfort sitting upon the most improbable ridge of high Gritstone.
The dale itself evokes all of those feelings of seclusion and removal, despite the busy community of ramblers, hikers, fell-runners and extreme mountain bikers who find their way there. The village [hamlet] is a scratch of roads in the centre of a bowl of hills, with Kinder Scout, one of the prominent plateaus of Dark Peak, occupying the northern curve. Extending around in a an almost-complete horseshoe sits the southern ridge of Rushup Edge, Mam Tor, and Hollin’s Cross. Another reason for it’s sanctity (at least to the “anonymous community of trampers” as Virginia Woolf calls hikers and walkers) might be the fact that on 24th April 1932–in an action that resonates strongly with the Diggers of 1649–some 400 members of The Rambler’s Association staged a mass trespass up onto Kinder Scout in support of walker’s rights and the freedom to roam. Clashes were apparently violent, but successive trespasses and public support for the cause eventually saw the creation of the National Parks in Britain, and finally the Countryside Rights of Way Act (2000!).
Starting to walk, then, we tramped up through Grindersbrook creek, surrounded by gnarly, weather-stunted oaks and ashes, with the greens of the moorland hills rising on either side. The whole effect of Edale is to hammer home the contrast of perspectives between ground level and heights. Down here, surrounded by things; objects, people, cars, trees, buildings: The eye is drawn to each individual obstacle and landmark. A particularity of vision that is pleasing in the idyllic town of Edale, but maddening in the crowded suddenness of a city.
Walking up out of Grindersbrook you cross the last-largest river, and you suddenly are washed with that feeling that comes from entering any highland or uplands: That the mountain has opened itself up to you, and you are admitted you into it’s secondary, higher mysteries held apart from the terrestial. It’s a feeling that I’ve found mirrored in geology before; on Carn Ingli (Pembrokeshire) the hill has a very definite strata of realms, each that must be tackled in their own way and offer their own relationships – the upward trog of hill climbing, the high scrambling-scree, the careful picking-through of the bouldered tops.
In this middle realm you can pause and look behind and the vale of Edale behind has become miniaturized, and itself hidden in reversal of roles to when you started.
Tithe and Gift
Mountains always demand tithes. If we are to dare to win the gift of perspective that they offer, then we have to give in return at least our effort, sweat, and all of the other climbers’ complaints: Chapped lips, aching muscles, sore feet and the possibile tumble. To win the edge of Kinder Scout (coming up from Grindersbrook) you have to navigate the scramble of boulders that tumbled from the darkstone ridges above. You’re in a wide and deep gulley, with the froth and furor of the mountain stream a constant growl at your feet. On our ascent we chose one of the collapsed paths that ran streamwards, forcing us to practice our boulder-traverses. Perspective and vision once again narrows down, much narrower and more immediate that even the line-of-sight of the ground level far below, to the immediate question-placing of this foothold or that, this stretch to that rock, this pushing-off and the holding-balance, and the stepping-onwards. Choices, choices.
But as hardwork as the tithe is, it is still a joyous task, to be so devoted to one’s body and to the immediate matter in front of you. A switch clicks in the brain and it feels right in that animal way that tells you that you are performing as you should. Fancifuly, I like to think that this sort of body-mind conjunction has something to do with the Upper Paleolithic explosion in hominid evolution: Homo Habilis and Erectus emerging out of the forests and the streams to suddenly start exploring new physical territories, using their limbs in new ways and to full capacity, learning to read and respond to their environment in new ways that caused the sudden increase in brain size from approx 650cc to upwards of 1500cc [cranial capacity] in over just a fragment of geological time: 35k years.
The Oceanic Heights
Eventually, up from the scramble and you win the peak top. Unlike other mountains, Kinder Scout is a plateau of sandstone and Gritstone covered with a heavy, boggy, peat layer. Hundreds of little gulleys and black-mud creeks snake their way through the top in dizzying complexity, whilst the edges of the plateau have rocky sentinel edges. The true ‘height’ is the slightly higher and harder edge of rocks north from the overhang of Edale rocks, forming Kinder Low, The Downfall, and Kinder Scout High Point.
Catching our breath on the edge of the mountain, and all trace of the immediate perspective of the tithe vanishes in another ‘levelling-up’ of an even higher perspective-mystery. Whereas before the plateau looked high and abstract; now the entire Dark Peak area has transfigured itself into oceans of rolling heights and shallow dips. What was once solid has been turned into seas of soil and green. This contradictory oceanic sense follows me for the rest of the time that we are on the uplands. Perhaps a part of my mind is recognising the fact that all of this area, with it’s Grit and Sand -stone deposits of layered minerals is actually the residue of vast delta mud and sandbanks, when, during the equatorial Carboniferous age all of this growing vegetation, frog-like amphibions, and the chittering invertebrate life of this area was indundated over millions of years by deluges of floods caused by the change of climate. At that time a mass of higher, older landforms existed from Scotland, North Wales, and spearing downwards through Britain, and the Pennines (and much of middle Britain, really) were formed from the accumulations and flows of mineral and organic materials. I think of the rolling chalks of the South Downs, their bodies made up of the billions of skeletons of tiny sea creatures. I think of the secretive curl of the ammonite, found in the centre of rocks up and down the south coast.
Huddling like the frozen meetings of trolls, we meet the Woolpacks: Large, wind-sculpted boulders of stone, some as big as cars. When the previous glacier retreated from its seat here during the last ice age, it ruptured the compacted sandstone rocks, and the floods and warming waters cut deep channels and wore away under the edges and overhangs. Now in more recent times the wind has taken over the water’s work, and smooth, fantastical shapes that could be fluted glass or sanded wood are being slowly eroded away, microgram by microgram. Again that contradiction is felt, as some of these Woolpacks, solid enough to be used as lintels and drystone walls, are deeply sculpted into overhangs that you can crawl under. The normal rules of gravity have been momentarily suspended.
Heading southwards down, off of Kinder plateau and along the ridge of Rushup’s Edge and to Mam Tor, we circle around the little valley of Edale. Swallows are flicking up on our left at foot-height, where the escarpment drips almost vertically down the hundreds of feet back to ground level. The rain that we had been avoiding all day finally catches up with us, and it feels like the mountain has once again retreated behind it’s veils of mystery and has closed itself from us. We can see deeper patches of blue-grey downpour heading around and along lines of hills, each shower a discrete entity, not an all-encompassing totality. From these hills we can still see the moving blankets of nimbus clouds as they aggregate and move apart, themselves in a deep conversation with the hills and open lands that they are navigating.
Maybe it is this sense, finally won, that concludes the un-planned pilgramidge up Kinder Scout: That althrough this landscape is made up of such removed “realms” – each that seems to invert the rules of the former – they are all painted together into an intricate dance of place, atmosphere, and time.